It was the year 1678. The international wine trade was in full swing, with French, Spanish, and Italian wines zipping around the Continent, mainly to Holland and England. But the sea voyage was long, and much of the wine spoiled on route. One day, a Liverpool wine merchant noticed a priest adding brandy to his wine, then tried the same with his own wine cargo. The result was a stroke of holy genius: Adding liquor not only preserved the wine but invented a new drink, fortified wine, the world’s first hybrid spirit.
Now, three centuries and change later, modern hybrids are setting sail anew. Ambitious beverage makers are combining distinctly different drinks to create 21st-century Labradoodle liquors. Think wine+vodka, beer+wine, rye+bourbon, tequila+cognac.
They’re doing so not because they need to preserve drinks for long voyages but to pursue novelty for its own sake. Well, that and to cash in on new markets. And although these drinks are just now exploding onto the scene, they should come as no surprise: The current era of hybrid drinks is two decades in the making. First came premium bottled cocktail mixers, such as Stirrings, launched in the late 1990s and early 2000s. In more recent years, bottled cocktails appeared, from mass-market mixes like Jose Cuervo’s line of flavored margaritas or Smirnoff Vodka Mojito, to high-end efforts like Crafthouse from The Aviary bartender Charles Joly. Today’s two-in-one bottled spirits are merely the next salvo in the battle for bar shelf space.
“Because cocktail enthusiasts are eager to try something new and the market is driven by innovation, a surefire way to make a mark is to create something no one has done before,” explains Geoff Kleinman, the founder of DrinkSpirits.com, a spirits magazine that’s reviewed its fair share of hybrid spirits.
Predictably, not everyone is a fan: “It’s like dumping two spirits in a glass and throwing it in a bottle,” says Cari Hah, a Los Angeles bartender and consultant with Cole’s, Neat, City Tavern, and other bars.
Of course, it’s not quite as simple as that. It takes skill to figure out the ratio of unlike spirits, and to blend and age them properly. But skill or no, some of these mad-scientist booze blends sound downright terrifying (tropical-flavored vodka + Moscato?!) and are sending polarizing shockwaves through the liquor industry. Yet there are shining examples of successful hybrids, which might, like those 17th-century wine traders, open up a whole new realm of spirited pioneering.
Comedian Adam Carolla‘s Mangria, a sangria for men. Or whatever.
Two Great Tastes that Taste Great (?) Together
As you might expect, some of the hybrids have origin stories along the lines of “You got chocolate in my peanut butter!” The comedian Adam Carolla invented Mangria, i.e., dude sangria, one night in 2010 when he didn’t have enough wine for a full glass, and so added what he found in the fridge: vodka and orange juice. At a hefty 20.5 percent alcohol, Carolla’s commercial version is a one-two party punch that fans apparently can’t get enough of. When it landed in Florida in August 2014, it sold out statewide eight days later.
For Vodquila founder Chander Arora, choosing between his two favorite spirits, vodka and tequila, was unfathomable. So, for his nightly tipple, he married them, mixing six-time distilled vodka with tequila in small vats at high temperatures. Again, this Frankenliquor has its fans: Since launching last year, Vodquila has already snagged silver and gold medals from the 2014 International Wine and Spirit Competition and Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of America.
Agave aficionados like Hah—who’s also the West Coast ambassador of the Tequila Interchange Project, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving the sanctity of tequila—are not exactly fans. “It’s freaking egregious,” she says.
Aficionados, however, are hardly most brands’ target market. New mashups are often designed for clubs, and are rolling out faster than you can get your twerk on: LeSutra (Justin Timberlake‘s flavored vodka+sparkling wine), Smoke (tropical-flavored vodka+Moscato wine), orExclusiv Vodka (raspberry vodka+Moscato), to name a few. And most mainstream liquor brands openly cop to two marketing motivations: 1) reaching a younger—usually female—demographic seeking the next new party drink; and 2) expanding market share (i.e., store shelf space).
Pernod Ricard, one of the early large producer hybridizers, launched Absolut Tune (vodka+sparkling wine) and Malibu Red (rum+tequila) in 2012, adding Kahlua Midnight (Kahlua+rum) to the portfolio in 2013. According to Malibu Rum brand manager Josh Hayes, Malibu Red was developed to reach a new demographic of drinkers, namely Hispanics and tequila fans. By mixing two of the most popular spirits associated with a good time, it’s a fiesta-meets-tropics party in a bottle.
Likewise, Courvoisier Gold (Moscato + cognac) and Courvoisier Rose (rosé + cognac) were also invented to reach a different group of consumers—the women whom Courvoisier’s master blender, Patrice Pinet, had noticed mixing wine into cognac during a visit to New York City five years ago.
“We wanted to catch new consumers—especially women—with a lower-proof, sweeter-tasting product,” she says.
Some large producers, however, hate being lumped in with these hybrids.
“It is not a hybrid,” Grey Goose brand ambassador Guillaume Jubien says emphatically of Grey Goose VX, made with vodka and 5 percent unaged Grande Champagne cognac. “It’s a love story of Maître de Chai [Grey Goose master blender] François Thibault’s two passions: Grey Goose and Cognac.” To Jubien, “hybrid” is a dirty word, an affront to the brand’s commitment to quality, even if the product does, you know, sound kindalike a hybrid.
Grey Goose’s VX, made even more baller with a little Cognac.
Hybrids Go Highbrow
Not all hybrids are quite so nakedly commercial, however, and some even have their partisans.
In New York’s Finger Lakes region, Herm Young, a fourth-generation farmer and owner of Young Sommer Winery, is making a version of Apfelkorn, an apple-flavored grain spirit that he discovered on a trip to Germany. In 2010, he released Sommer Solstice, a blend of 20 percent TREE Vodka (a vodka made from New York apples and produced by a neighboring distillery) and Cabernet Sauvignon/Cabernet Franc wines that are barrel-aged together in French oak for three months. The combination has been so popular—Young sells out as quickly as he can produce it—that he’s launching a second hybrid this fall: Apfel Breeze, a blend of apple vodka and apple wine.
“If something new and different brings more awareness to the category, be it beer, cider, wine or spirits, and makes the customer happy, it’s a win for everyone,” says Young.
In the whiskey world, hybridization remains fascinatingly incestuous. Pioneers of so-called “Frankenwhiskey,” High West Distillery of Park City, Utah, has garnered a cult following with its smoky High West Campfire (which blends Scotch, rye, and bourbon) and oh-so-smooth High West Bourye (bourbon+rye, get it?). For lovers of both whiskey and beer, R5 Hop-Flavored Whiskey from Charbay Distillery in St. Helena, California, is a mash made in heaven, with a distinct profile of both hops and malt. Distilled from 6,000 gallons of Bear Republic Racer 5 IPA, it’s the most luxurious Boilermaker you’ll ever set your lips on.
And on the outer fringes, craft distillers are experimenting with grafting the traits of one alcohol directly onto another. Launched in May 2014,Piedre Almas +9 is the first mezcal-gin on the market, a double-distilled mezcal that’s been distilled a third time with nine classic gin botanicals, like juniper, coriander, and orange peel.
“What the guys over at High West and Charbay are doing are ideal hybrids, blends that elevate the category,” says Michael Neff, the former owner of Ward III and Rum House in New York City and current bar manager at 3 Clubs in Los Angeles. And since bartenders make mini-hybrids every night—they’re called “cocktails”—Neff thinks unusual combinations of spirits are essential to the evolution of drinks.
Cheers to that. And with a flood of hybrids on the horizon, one can only hope that the deluge will encourage drinkers to double down on this cockamamie yet compelling era of category-defying spirits.